Digital Transformation in HE: A Munster Technological University TEL event

co-written by Lawrie Phipps

View across the river Lee to the abandoned St Kevin’s Asylum, Sunday’s Well, Cork City. Photo by Lawrie Phipps

Note: Additional commentary about this event can be found at Lawrie’s site.

Last week the TEL team at Munster Technological University hosted an event that they called “Digital Transformation and Digital Practice,” at MTU’s location in Cork city.  Lawrie Phipps and I both got to be there in person, in the physical room, the first such room I’ve been in since around this date in 2020.  

I keep saying the year is 2020, when I try to remember the date aloud.  

This was a hybrid event, and we had more people in the Zoom room than we did in our seminar room.  The idea, when Gearoid O Suilleabhain and Tom Farrelly were planning things, was that we have a facilitated conversation about what has been happening around education in digital places because of the pandemic, what were the things that MTU had already been doing before the emergency, and what we hoped would happen next.  We wanted for the people in the rooms to ask us questions and also to talk amongst themselves, so there were MTU TEL team members in the Zoom room to facilitate that conversation, and we had a coffee/tea break after our initial panel discussion to allow time for reflection and follow ups.  We were grateful for all of the people who showed up in each mode, it was an excellent crowd.

What I hoped to come out of the discussion was not any facile sense that we were “moving on” from the pandemic, but rather an opportunity to recognize and sit with the facts that 1) this pandemic (thanks to our governments and capitalism) isn’t going anywhere and 2) people have needed us to pay attention to what digital tools and places can bring to education and other public services for a very long time.  In addition, it was a chance for us to talk publicly about the research that Gearoid, Tom, and I have done at MTU around academic teaching practices in 2020-21, and for Lawrie and I to draw connections between that work and the research he and I have been doing on student and staff emergency remote teaching (and learning) practices.

There is an edited recording of the event on YouTube, and I’m placing it in this post for you to have a look/listen if you like.  

 Link to YouTube video of DX in  HE

I want here  to draw out the central themes we tried to address in the time we had,

  1.  Teaching staff at MTU were already well-supported in exploring and developing digital practices in their work, and told us that while they didn’t feel like they really knew what they were doing all the time, they also felt it was OK to try whatever was necessary because they already knew who to talk to and go to for help.  Sometimes the people staff said they worked with were the TEL and EDSU teams at MTU, sometimes they were colleagues who they already knew were confident and capable with a range of digital tools and places.  The important part was not necessarily being confident with digital per se, but being confident that someone (or more than one someones) would help and support them doing what needs to be done.
  1. Supporting teaching staff means that you are also supporting students.  Staff who are not worried about their contracts, compensation, and precarity can spend their energy on their work, on teaching, on connecting with their students, on recognizing when their students are struggling and getting help in figuring out how to make things better for students.  The staff experience is the student experience.
  1. The most precarious students, those who are from marginalized populations due to race, gender, and economic circumstances, tend to look for help from staff members who they recognize and trust as being “like them” (or at least, not the cis white men for whom the power structures of institutions like universities are traditionally aligned).  That often means that the most vulnerable staff members, staff who are Black, staff who are women, staff who represent “non traditional” populations in academia, are being asked to do more work on behalf of students.  When we interviewed white men senior academics in the UK about their students in the pandemic emergency, we heard “I haven’t seen/heard much from them, they are probably OK.”  When we interviewed early career white women we heard, “I haven’t seen many students, I hope they are OK.”  And we also heard from an early career Asian woman “I keep hearing from students, my inbox is full of one-on-one conversations, it never stops.”
  1. Digital Transformation is not about technology. The technology that is deployed at a university is a necessary first step to potentially transforming practice, but it’s only one thing, and might not actually be transformative if all you are doing is “digitizing” (s/o to Jim Nottingham for helping make that distinction clear to me–it’s a distinction I hear from library workers, too, pointing out that there’s nothing inherently transformative about digitization).  Transformation also cannot simply be “digital by default”–not everything needs to be done digitally, and thought and care need to be put into where digital affordances can help, and where they can actually do harm (as is the case for surveillance, predictive analytics, and relying on the chance-y promises of AI as a substitute for human labor and care).  Gearoid, in the conversation, offered MTU’s idea of “digital by design”–thoughtful attention to where their work as a teaching and research institution aligns with what digital tools, places, and platforms make possible.  It’s an approach that doesn’t just value the things they know they need to do with digital, but provides sandbox-y opportunities for staff and students alike to make connections between technology and their practices, to come up with emergent possibilities that no one expected. When any organisation starts on a process of digital transformation, they need the technology in place, but they need to make sure that the people are both resourced and supported, and only when we have alignment between the transformation we want, and people being supported and resourced do we see a culture change, a genuine transformation. This should always be an iterative process that centers people, not tech.

That last point chimed nicely with the message offered by Audrey Watters in her Digifest 22 keynote this week.  In the Q&A she advocated and hoped simultaneously for a future that was about people, not “the algorithm.”  In her talk she said directly:  “Hope is not in technology. Hope is in our humanity.”

In our discussion at MTU, we also tried to center people, their lives, and their needs, in a context when that can be alarmingly challenging.   And the work is far from complete.

Something about Networks and Connections

Butterfly amaryllis from my mother’s garden

I grew up on Air Force Bases in the continental US and moved around fairly frequently (though not as frequently as some!) in my childhood. My parents had met in their small Louisiana town, and started dating when they were in college at LSU.  I get to thank a hurricane–I think it was Betsy– for them spending a weekend on the phone together that made them realize they wanted to spend their lives together.  Once they had left their small town for Baton Rouge, they began building relationships that are still strong, friendships with my mom’s roommates (a woman who was sent from Cuba by her relatives, a Cajun woman after whom I am named) and their boyfriends (now husbands)–they remained close with those people, after leaving Louisiana, and we see them when we can, they are present in my mom’s life and mine.

They moved to Arizona for Daddy’s first posting and had me, and their social network grew to include the friends they made in Tucson, as well as their family and friends back in Louisiana.  That core group of friends knew me before I was born, and even though we knew we would not be in Tucson forever, those friends stayed a part of my parents’ (and my) life even after we were sent to Minot, ND, and then to Vandenberg AFB CA.  We sent letters, traveled to see them for Thanksgiving or Easter.  My parents had local connections, too, made friends (and kept many) where they found themselves, but also kept the connections they had made before.  

When things were hard where they were, if they were lonely, their local network was not the only one they had to draw upon.  

Local circumstances were not their entire circumstances , they were only a part, and the larger entirety of their lives, their scattered network of friends, made it easier to deal when tough times happened in other parts of their lives. 

When I moved from school to school, it was hard, but also gave me practice in connecting with new people.  My mother helped me in this because she knew I was a person who craved other people; she sought out kids for me to meet when we moved somewhere new, made sure I had chances to find at least one friend in a new place.  

When we left for a new base, I was sad to leave friends behind but because of my parents’ habits of keeping connections, I never really felt that they were gone forever.  We got Xmas letters, sometimes we would get to visit them, we were in touch and real to each other (even before the internet, which did eventually make that kind of thing easier).

When I was in high school I had a small group of very close friends but they were not all in the same place all the time at school.  I had swim team friends and speech and debate friends and in-class-with-me-friends and they were not all part of the same network.  So when (inevitably) there were fallings-out or misunderstandings or breakups in one group I still had the other groups.  It was never terrible all the time.

I realize that my circumstances were lucky, but also think that my parents were very deliberate in building that capacity in me, in modeling for me a way to have a kind of resilience (I know, I know) in my own personal life, so that when there were struggles in one place it wasn’t everywhere and didn’t make my entire life hard.  I had refuges, other places and people I could turn to for relief and respite and support.

I almost made the mistake of shrinking my entire undergraduate university experience down to one group, the anthropology department.  I knew I wanted to major in that from the beginning, and threw myself into everything anthropology my first year.  My friends, (including romantic partners) were in the department. My social life was in the department and when it was going well it was great.

When it did not go well I had nowhere else to go.

Almost on a whim, I decided my second year to live in an International dorm on campus, one where every room had one American student and one exchange student from a different country.  I roomed with a Korean woman, my suite-mate from LA had a roommate from Japan.  In addition to Japanese and Korean students there were Italian and British and French and Australian students.  

I had a fantastic year.  And when I had a hard time with my studies, or with relationships (yeah, still with anthropology students), I had this part of my life that was my dorm hall, and the friends I made there (and who I still have).

Living in that dorm meant that I decided to study abroad.  I went to Ireland for the following year and it changed my trajectory through anthropology, because up until that point I was studying archaeology, and I realized in Ireland that if I went to grad school I wanted to study living people. 

So when I did apply to graduate school it was to study folklore and anthropology and also as a newly married person (because living apart from my boyfriend for the year helped me to figure out that it would be nice to have him in my life all the time).  And I arrived in grad school ready to be a grad student but also not entirely dependent on graduate school to be my entire life.  

The friends I made, the network I built in graduate school was almost entirely independent of my studies.  I hung out with archaeologists (they are much better at being constructively social than socio-cultural anthropologists…) and so when I had a hard time in any given seminar, or conflicts with professors, I had somewhere else to go, other connections to draw upon.  And, not just there in the town where I was in grad school, but the connections I had built and my parents had built were still there, and I had multiple places and sets of people to ask for support when I needed it.  I had a partner (also an academic, so not completely out of the world I was in) and was an entire person independent of my graduate studies.

This helped me survive graduate school.  I would not have, if my entire world had been my studies.

When we moved to Charlotte, with our two young kids, we moved to be a part of the department of anthropology here, and that helped us have a local network right away.  But we were also moving to the state where my partner grew up, and so we had a personal network, too.  We had brothers and sisters and in-laws and cousins to be with, our life was not reduced just to the university, we had other options.  With kids in school we made friends with some of the parents of their friends, and that was good and also sometimes complicated, so it was (again) good that when that was hard we had other networks to rely on.  

I am repeating myself.  I am working through to see a pattern.

When I started working in libraries I did not leave my anthropology network behind, it was still right there with me.  When I was working in libraries I also built connections with ed tech and instructional design people, because it made sense and also because I made friends.  When I had to stop working in libraries, those co-existing networks helped me not to despair, or think that there was nothing else I could do.  

I was more than my job.  I was (and am) part of more than one network.  I am so lucky, I have so many kinds of people in my life.  

I worry about my students who seem to only have university-based networks, or who are isolated from their non-university networks in some way.  I am more confident for my students who already show up with strong connections to a supportive community, with connections independent of the university. I worry about colleagues who are deeply embedded in one organization, or attached to one conference, who don’t have a different place to go when things go wrong. Things always go wrong, at some point.

When I hear people in a variety of contexts talking about “building community” for students or colleagues (or, customers), I worry about that, too.  Is the motivation an additive one?  “Let’s give them more people to connect with and rely on?”  Or is it intended to be a kind of capture?  I think in situations where money is concerned (conferences.  tuition) it can too often be the latter.

I wonder if one of the differences, in professional networks, is if we are people or products?  Maybe that was the difference in grad school, too.  I connected with and kept people in my networks who were people to me, and who treated me as more than what my degree or career would or could be.  

When I returned to the anthropology department of my graduate program after the death of my child, the people who saw me as a person hugged me and asked me how I was.  The people for whom I was a (failed) product did not see or speak to me at all, even as I passed them in the hallway.

I have witnessed a lot of extractive networking. I’ve probably done my fair share, too. Extractive practices do not build the kind of networks that endure and support. I have long been wary of organizations or events that claim to “build community.” All we can do is make space, and do things we think might be useful (for ourselves, for each other). Whether a community emerges from any given organization or event or series of events isn’t up to us.

I am looking at 2022, when I get to start working as a Professor of Practice for a new MA on Climate Science Leadership at Virginia Tech, thanks to a grade school friend who is still in my life.  I get to work with Munster Technological University thanks to connections that have come to me via edtech circles but also my insistence on keeping connected to people in Ireland.  My daughter is getting married this year and my best friend, who I have known since I was 13 years old, will attend the wedding along with my mom who taught me over and over again the importance of keeping good people in your life, even across long distances and gaps in time.  

I remain here with questions, at the end of this ramble.  How are we people to each other, in our (ideally) various networks, offline and online alike?  How are we treated as (how do we treat others as) products?  What does that difference mean for our experience of our networks? 

In Support of Trans Colleagues

Image from

Many thanks to the colleagues who have collectively worked to compose this letter.

This letter is being posted here and also on Lawrie Phipps’ site

The recent surge in long-standing prejudice against trans people in the UK (some of which we are also seeing in the US and Canada) is worrying and infuriating in equal measure. We the undersigned are stating our unequivocal support for the trans community, including our trans colleagues in instructional design, academic development, and education technology, with whom we work, from whom we learn, and without whom we could not be as strong across the sector as we are.

There is no room in our field for trans-exclusionary thinking. There is no room in our world for framing trans people as anyone other than who they declare themselves to be. 

Trans men are men. 

Trans women are women.

Non-binary people are people. 

Their presence in this world is no threat to any cisgender people at all. 

We reject the attempt by anti-trans activists and academics to frame their trans-exclusionary language and actions as anything other than abuse. Trans-exclusionary views in learning and research environments, whether expressed openly or not, can and do cause profound harm to students and staff. This is not a matter of “academic freedom” or “sex-based rights.” This is a question of equity, dignity, and basic human rights. 

We want to make it clear that so-called “gender-critical” stances actively harm trans people. An alarming amount of cis people seem to believe that these stances represent a moral good and an important defense against misogyny. This is not the case. The gender critical movement plays on people’s fears to position trans people as the enemy and as acceptable collateral damage in the protection of cis women’s rights. The trans community, and especially trans women and femmes who encounter and deal with misogyny every day, fiercely oppose anyone being assaulted, shamed for who they feel attracted to, or coerced into sexual activity. Suggesting otherwise frames trans people as enemies, and as such is anti trans.

Those who want to publish trans-exclusionary pieces as a part of their academic work can of course do so. When they are called out and directed to the harm those words cause, they need to recognise that these are appropriate consequences, not “cancellation.” 

We sign and publish this letter as a signal to our trans colleagues that we value and support you. We stand with you against prejudice, bigotry, and hate. 


Please sign your name at this Google Form

Donna M. Lanclos, PhD

Lawrie Phipps

Samantha Ahern

Ryan Brazell

Anne-Marie Scott

Danielle Johnstone

Puiyin Wong, SFHEA

Kerry Pinny

Bryony Ramsden, PhD

Polly Hinksman

Jason Davies

Hayley Atkinson

Laura Gibbs

Maggie Halterman-Dess

Elizabeth Ellis

Gaby Koenig

Martin King

Simon Bowie

Emma Kennedy

Trip Kirkpatrick

James Saville

Caroline Ball

Maura Smale

Dan Lockton

Ka-Ming Pang

Ella Mitchell

Margy MacMillan

Chris Rowell

Helen Murphy

Dorothea Salo

Bethan Ruddock

Richard Nevell, PhD

John Krug

Dave Pattern

Phil Barker

Andy Windsor

Rebecca jones

Shana Higgins

Daniel Lynds

Kevin Sanders

David Clover

Robin Ewing, St. Cloud State University

Bonnie Stewart

Annie Gleeson

Becky Yoose

Johanna Jacobsen Kiciman

Jane Cramer

David Travis

Ian Clark

Gill Ryan, OU in Scotland

Katharine Schopflin

Mapping Information Practices

Me delivering the talk about the importance of people to information practices

In May I gave a talk to the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges group for an information literacy seminar.  I was asked by the organizers to design and deliver an interactive piece for the talk.  Given my theme on the importance of relationships and human connections that take into account power and position, I wanted to give participants a way to reflect on their own information practices, as a way to thinking about not just what they do around information, and where they get their information from, but also with whom do they think about/process/evaluate/criticize/decide to reject various kinds of information?

At this point I’ve been working with various kinds of practice mapping for 10 years.    Visitors and Residents mapping was intended to be a way to get people to reflect on their digital practices, and eventually Lawrie Phipps and I came up with triangle practice mapping so that we could avoid the trap of people trying to pigeonhole themselves (or feel they were being pigeonholed) within value-laden labels.  

In the workshops I have facilitated, it becomes clear quite quickly that it is difficult to think about our digital practices without eventually arriving at a necessary conversation about which people we are interacting with in digital places and on digital platforms.  It is likewise difficult to think about the information we seek and trust (or distrust) without involving the people we associate with that information.  Who wrote the article?  Who is the story about?  Who is upset about that book? Whose interests are threatened by that exposé?  Whose priorities are being ignored?  Who do you talk to about the articles you read?  Whose social media feeds do you get trusted information from?  Whose do you avoid?

So, I tried to adapt the idea of triangle digital practice mapping to help people think about their information practices.  

It looks like this (the image is also available here):

Each edge of the triangle is a different domain in your life: Political, Professional, and Personal. The inside of the triangle is where you map the people you engage with in your information practices. The outside of the triangle is where you map the places you get information from.Some things will overlap. Some things will be mappable more than once. The point is the process, not any kind of perfection.

While the alliteration is fun, the domains Political, Personal, and Professional could be other things.  If you are working with students, you could have them map information they use for Studies, for Work, and for Private Life.  If you are working with faculty, you could have them map information they use for Research, for Private Life, and for Teaching.  As with digital practice mapping, the domains themselves matter less than the conversation and reflection that you are trying to provoke.  

When the LVAIC folks did this mapping, they went into breakout rooms and then came back into the main conference room to feed back on how it went.  Some were surprised at how few people there were in their information network.  Many had never taken the time to really think about the role that people played in their information practices.   They only had less than 10 minutes to do the exercise, so there was a lot left that we could have discussed that we just didn’t have time for.

I think there are many conversations that can emerge from this kind of mapping.  I’d be interested to see what it looks like when people get to be in a room together (physical or digital) and really spend time with their information practice maps, and comparing their practices and networks to those of other people.  What differences will they find?  What similarities?  

I’d welcome feedback from people who try out this mapping for themselves, or in a group.  I’m also trying to find places where we can experiment with this mapping in workshop contexts, so if you have ideas please let me know.

The Work We Have Always Needed to Do: A talk for LVAIC

Image by Pexels from Pixabay


“It might well be that at this point it is a cliche to point to what our experiences with COVID are teaching us and say ‘this was always the case, it is just even more apparent now.’  The struggles we encounter as teachers, students, and library workers confined to online environments are versions of struggles that existed already in those environments (but might not have been so widely felt), and also that were always the case in physical environments.  When we talk about the need for engagement, when we wonder what that looks like in Zoom, it bears remembering that those questions were relevant in classrooms and lecture halls.  This extremely online time in education is forcing us to ask, what is a teaching environment?  What is learning?  What is a library?  Where are the people?  Too often the easy “solution” offered to those concerned about engagement and interactivity are those of edtech surveillance, and the alleged promises of AI.  I want to talk about those promises, and the problems of reducing teaching, learning, and research to the numbers offered by edtech and library systems.”

That is the abstract I shared several months ago with the fine and kind people–Kelly Cannon, Carrie Baldwin-SoRelle, and Jess Denke– who invited me to speak with the Lehigh Valley Association for Independent Colleges group, for their symposium for library workers and faculty about information literacy.   The talk I ended up giving–and try to capture here– had some distance from that abstract, but I did end up talking at least a bit about surveillance, care, and our responsibilities to our colleagues and students that well pre-dates the pandemic emergency.

In the interest of care I want to position myself: I am a white woman, I am Cajun, I am of a settler people, and have spent my entire life in the US living on unceded occupied land of many different Indigenous people.  I am living and writing while on Cherokee and Catawba land, in what is now called North Carolina.  I would like to point you all to and encourage you to contribute to efforts to get land back into Indigenous people’s hands.  I am donating part of my speaking fee to this organization.

It’s been a long time since March 2020 and since that time, that pandemic time kicked in, I have joined a large (and I think still growing) group of people who found it hard to get anything done beyond what had to be done.  I was privileged to be able to stay home, work from home, arrange for my kid to attend his last year of high school from home, and for my husband to also be able to work from our home.  So it might sound like whining when I say how difficult everything has been with this pall of death and neglect.  More than half a million Americans have died so far, and more will die still, and so many of these deaths were avoidable, if not for the neglect of our government in 2020, and the capitalist impulses now that continue to keep vaccines away from people who need them, and continue to put people at risk, nationally and globally.

So I’ve turned to podcasts to motivate and distract myself.  Sometimes it works.  I manage to clean the kitchen, or fold the laundry, or back when the only thing I could do to leave the house was go for a walk, I would listen while walking. I get to thank my daughter for introducing me to Not Another D&D podcast, a performance and Dungeons & Dragons play podcast that I’m still listening to and is responsible for me getting back into playing the game, which I last played when I was about 12.  Playing a lyncanthropic elf ranger has been an important part of my pandemic coping.

Podcasts were a way for me to engage with something without doomscrolling, and also without reading, because my ability to sit with a text and focus was destroyed, and is only slowly coming back.  In addition to D&D podcasts I’ve also been listening to You’re Wrong About, which started off as a “debunking” podcast about media coverage and misconceptions about things like the Satanic Panic, serial killers, and the so-called “obesity epidemic.”     

It was You’re Wrong About that reminded me about Jonestown, in Guyana and the massacre of just over 900 people there in November 1978.  Their cult leader, Jim Jones, gathered vulnerable people, including drug addicts and sex workers, and also idealists and activists who believed in the end to racial segregation.   In 1977 (and here I am quoting from the article Escape from Jonestown by Julia Scheeres) “New West magazine was about to publish an exposé portraying Jim Jones—by now a celebrated California powerbroker—as a charlatan who faked healings, swindled money from his followers, and fathered a son with an attractive acolyte. It was all true.”

“Few folks know that  Jim Jones was a civil rights leader in Indianapolis—integrating lunch counters and churches—and that the majority of his victims were African Americans who heeded his message of social equality. How terribly they were betrayed for believing in this dream.”

Once in Guyana members of the People’s Temple had their passports and money taken away, and they were stuck.  Jones had been talking about “revolutionary suicide” to his followers for years, but the visit of members of the media and a member of congress spurred him to finally follow through on those plans to kill his followers (and himself).

“They drank the Kool-aid”

If you listen to You’re Wrong About, or drill down into their source materials, you know that what the Jonestown people were offered to mask the taste of cyanide was grape flavor Flavor-Aid, not Kool-Aid brand.  But that’s not the point.  The phrase “Drank the Kool Aid” suggests the beginning of a journey into misinformation.  But for Jonestown people, it was the end.  It was their death.

“They drank the Kool-aid” is  a phrase I heard a lot during the Trump administration and continue to hear with regard to QAnon during the Biden administration, and anti-vaxx, anti-science during COVID paranoia.  But that phrase, as Julia Scheeres points out in her article, is an act of erasure and injustice. 

Jonestown was not a mass suicide but a mass murder, perpetuated by Jim Jones, who lied to and manipulated people based on his public vision for racial harmony, for the sake of his private vision of “a revolutionary suicide”

Once people were in Jonestown, they knew they were trapped, and no information was going to save them.  This was not an information literacy problem

Jim Jones’ victims drank the cyanide laced Flavor-aid, and many of them were forced to.  About a third of the victims were minors, and they were poisoned before the adults were.  And that was their end.  More information was not going to save them.  Protecting them from predators like Jim Jones would have.  Structural changes that would provide health and mental health care and civil rights–which were being fought for in the 1970s–would have.  

Using “drank the Kool-aid” as the beginning suggests that the important story is that of Jim Jones, of our learning about him and how he victimized people in the aftermath of the mass murder at Jonestown.  But the people Jim Jones victimized, and isolated from their families, and took down to Guyana with lies and then trapped there, they had stories, they were part of other people’s stories, and they cried, and drank, and died, and their stories ended.  

What that phrase “Drank the Kool-aid” signals neatly is the extent to which the speaker thinks the person in question is at fault for what they believe, and what happens to them because of it.  It signals the belief that people are rational, and that we might, if we give people enough of the “right kind” of information, prevent them from drinking the Kool-aid.  

Information alone cannot save us from the problems of QAnon, or science denialism.  Exposure to peer-reviewed articles will not necessarily debunk conspiracy theories about vaccines, because people do not encounter information in a vacuum.  They encounter information via their networks of trusted people–of family, of friends, of perceived experts who were recommended by people in that network.

The lies that are told by cult leaders and propagandists benefit someone.  Who benefits from the lies, even when they are told knowing they are lies?  Who suffers when the lies are told? Who isn’t harmed enough by the lies to work to change things?  Whiteness, white supremacy, is implicated in the lies being told now about voter fraud, the lies that led to anti-voter legislation in (for example) the state of Georgia and that are being advanced by legislatures in several more states across the country.  The stories of voter fraud are told because they are useful for the political agenda of people interested in suppressing votes, especially the votes of Black people in the US.

People are not rational.  This is a problem anthropologists have long had with economics, the extent to which that field treats people as “rational actors:” predictable, subject to particular laws of behavior, and responding identically to circumstances as and when they change.  People are not rational.

They are “relational”

Abeba Birhane defines and describes the need for relational ethics in AI, and I think that need applies well beyond AI:  

“At the heart of relational ethics is the need to ground key concepts such as ethics, justice, knowledge, bias, and fairness in context, history, and an engaging epistemology. Fundamental to this is the need to shift over from prioritizing rationality as of primary importance to the supremacy of relationality.”

Libraries have a long and troubled history with rationality at the core of its practices.  What I think that phrase, “Drank the Kool-aid” also demands in terms of what I’m thinking about rational approaches to information literacy, and what it can and can’t do, is the importance of relationships.  People and relationships are vital to how and why people move through the information landscape, which is always changing.  And the extent to which people have agency in any given information landscape is down to who they are, what kind of power they have, and the structures that surround them that constrain their ability to make decisions on their own behalf.

Tressie McMillan Cottom said at ACRL 2021 that we value particular information because we value the people from whom that information came.  I would extend that, or add to it, or put along sideways the point that we also tend to value the stories of the people who we value.  Whose stories we value informs the way that the Jonestown massacre is remembered, in the disconnected turn of phrase, “Drank the Kool-aid.”   Whose stories we value helps explain why throughout the Trump administration we kept hearing the stories of his voters, of “anxious whites” and why they voted the way they did, why the dapper white supremacist was a character in new stories not exclusively, but especially after 2016.  Whose stories we value informs the current (as of May 19 2021) coverage of the Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, current US policy on that occupation, and who we decide to listen to.

I appreciate this commentary on Twitter from Shea Swauger:  “to be clear, information literacy will NOT fix racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, classism, ableism, islamophobia, capitalism, colonialism, structural oppression, or white supremacy”

This definitely reflects my own thinking about information literacy.  

Attempting any classification of sources into “reliable” or “unreliable” cannot be the substitute for building relationships with people.  And this line of thinking is not new, the one that says we cannot rely on checklists to save us from misinformation and lies.  Kevin Seeber was writing about this in 2017, and this by Carrie Wade is from 2018.  

“Beyond the nouns and the verbs of “fact-checking” and “media literacy” and all of the advertisements and marketing materials we have at our disposal, what this discourse fails to acknowledge is the ways that knowledge is socially constructed. As libraries we cannot rely on better websites to solve political problems.”

Mike Caulfield, in his work around disinformation, suggests that we help students decide who deserves their time before “going down a rabbit hole” —the more time you give misinformation, the more it distracts you from constructive and productive work/life/play.  I think we should spend less time debunking and more time shunning.  Information is surrounded by and embedded in the relationships people have with each other, and their intent towards each other in sharing information.  Even people we do not know personally are in relationships with us, structurally.  It’s worth asking, if my relationship with that piece of information is via the white supremacist organization that shared it, what obligation do I have to break that information down, or can I disengage from that particular stream, because I recognize the toxicity of the organization sharing it?

I would point here to the work emerging from UNC’s Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life, in particular the critical disinformation studies syllabus, which offers us a way of structuring our approach to information that centers people, structures, and power.    

If you think you can be and should be useful to people in terms of helping them navigate information and misinformation, you need to be a person to them first.  So cultivating presence is central to that relationship building.

Relationship building is difficult in any circumstance, and it can be especially difficult when trying to engage entirely online when you are accustomed to doing it in physical spaces.  There are many ways of being human online, and very few of them involve lists of dos and don’t, and questionnaires about information provenance.  Being human, in a library context, is challenging when the library worker presence is predominantly in one-shot instruction sessions, or online tutorials about how to use the library web sites to get to “reliable” sources (I know you know this).  

Nicole Pagowsky notes that, in fact, doing one-shots can contribute to misunderstanding how to navigate information, and also misunderstand the library.  

“The way we engage in teaching within one-shot models, and the associated expectations for measurement, both keep us in a holding pattern of reactionary yes-people unable to enact our own agency within campus power structures.”

One-shots happen in the absence of a meaningful relationship between library workers and teaching faculty, in situations where valuing how many students you are “in contact” with, or who encounter the library in those sessions, is prioritized over embedding work and selves into the processes of education, and building relationships, trusted connections that students can then call on as they navigate their education.  Transactional library experiences, reducing information evaluation to a list of tasks, obscure the larger work that we should be responsible for.

Being extremely online can make it hard to literally see people in the internet (think about all the anxiety about cameras on/off in Zoom-based teaching)–it requires a new definition of “presence” that those privileged enough to get to be in rooms and buildings have assumed meant “in the same physical place”–engagement never was a guarantee.  Think about newspapers, naps, distracted gazing out of windows in class.  Lack of engagement is not new.  What it looks like might be.

Covid and the pandemic emergency has led to a massive and not entirely voluntary movement to online teaching and learning practices.  Those who were not already “extremely online” were confronted with the reality of digital as a place, not just a tool or a distraction or a repository for content.  

If digital is a place where we teach, and we hope that students learn, what kind of place are we in?  What is a classroom?  Is it Zoom?  Is it Moodle, or Canvas?  What is a learning space?  What is a library?

Libraries have been confronting “what is a library” for a while now–it has never been just a building, or a collection of databases, but also a network of people, a collection of expertise, a node for a college or university community to connect with in the course of doing, analyzing, and disseminating academic work.  

Some universities and colleges have had the luxury of not examining what a classroom or a lecture hall is in physical spaces.  Private universities in the US have had the particular privilege of making central to their student experiences the physical, the co-location of students and faculty and facilities in a way that assumes connection and engagement.  Oxford and Cambridge in the UK have a similar advantage, and make similar assumptions.

Large state institutions, and community colleges have not always had that luxury.  That doesn’t mean that their physical campuses were critically examined, but that they have had to be more online, or in other ways more attuned to the distanced needs of (for example) commuter students, or students who cannot, because of life circumstances (the needs of their families, the needs of their bodies) prioritize physical presence on campus as a part of their educational experience.  This is similar to the situation that individual people experience when they need to turn to online/distanced relationships to make up for what they cannot or are not experiencing in their own face to face/physical spaces:  queer kids growing up in politically conservative contexts; Black, brown, and Indigenous people teaching in predominantly white institutions.  To assume that it is impossible to build relationships in online only spaces is to be operating under assumptions generated in contexts where it’s easy to build relationships in physical spaces, because you are surrounded by people who recognize you as part of their community.

We have always needed to do the work of recognizing that co-location is not the same thing as engagement.

And it is a concern for engagement, for evidence of student participation that drives the market for edtech surveillance and learning analytics.  Educators and administrators are being sold the idea that if you count the clicks, if you track the eye movements, if you swipe in with cards at instructional library sessions, that you get a meaningful number that tells you something about engagement, about learning.

Think about what counts as Engagement on Facebook:  clicks and controversy.  

Karen Hao report ed in MIT Technology Review just this past March (2021)

“The algorithms that underpin Facebook’s business weren’t created to filter out what was false or inflammatory; they were designed to make people share and engage with as much content as possible by showing them things they were most likely to be outraged or titillated by.”

That is not the kind of engagement we are going for instructionally, but the number of clicks and time spent “on task” is the kind that Learning Management Systems collect.  Collecting and counting clicks is collecting proxy data for learning, much like checklists serve as problematic proxies for the work of information literacy.  It’s not effective, and not representative of the work we or our students need to do.

What is the work of the library for, and is it information literacy?

What is the work of the university for, and is it information literacy?

What about knowledge, its production, its navigation, its analysis?

This Spring I taught an ethnographic methods class, and we approached the topic with the lens of the work of Linda Tuhiwai Smith, in particular her Decolonizing Methodologies book.   She notes throughout the book the importance of relationships, and the ways that indigenous researchers are responsible to their own networks even before they begin researching.  Smith wants Indigenous researchers to ask the following questions about any given research project, and I think they are good practice for any researcher:

“Who defined the research problem

For whom is this study worthy and relevant?  Who says so?

What knowledge will the community gain from this study?

What knowledge will the researcher gain from this study?

What are some likely positive outcomes from this study?

What are some possible negative outcomes?

How can the negative outcomes be eliminated?

To whom is the researcher accountable?”

(2012, pp175-76)

I also had my students read Marisa Elena Duarte and Miranda Belarde-Lewis on library cataloging practices and Indigenous knowledge, and they have very similar things to say about the importance of building and maintaining relationships to indigenous scholars with each other, and to the people who they are hoping to learn from.  

I interviewed several of my anthropologist colleagues as guest lectures (in soundfile/podcast form) for this class, so that my students could hear the voices of anthropologists who are not me–it’s a practice I’ll continue even if I ever teach in physical classrooms again.  More than one of them made the point that to be able to do the work that you find important and interesting, you need to start with what is important to the people you hope to learn from.  You might end up realizing that the project you wanted to do isn’t the one you should do.  You might find that you are stuck organizing the broom closet for a month before anyone will have an unguarded conversation with you.  You do this work to build relationships, because your goal should not be extractive, for people to give you information, but for your work to have meaning to them, and for you to be humans to each other, not just potential transactions.

Smith, Duarte, and Belarde-Lewis all write about knowledges, the importance of knowing whose knowledge, and in relation to whose other knowledges.  Indigenous knowledge  and its production is historically erased or bounded within Western interpretation of that knowledge–those processes are social, and require social analysis (and a power analysis), not just fact checking.

In their respective works, Smith, and Duarte and Belarde-Lewis highlight the importance of relationships, of trust, of creating places where Indigenous people can connect with each other, with their own priorities, and produce knowledge by and for and of themselves, not just in relation to the knowledges and structures imposed on them by colonization and the controlling processes of them.  There is a lot that non-Indigenous people need to learn from Indigenous people and traditions, there’s a lot of listening we need to do, but today I want to point to this as one thing we need to pay much more attention to when we worry about things like “information literacy.”  

Sam Popovich notes that in LIS, the opposite of knowledge is defined as error, which then might theoretically be “fixed” with more information.  

“Library leadership view the opposite of knowledge to be error (correctable by more knowledge), and so ideology—knowledge in the service of power—is automatically excluded. By excluding the concept of ideology from any consideration of intellectual freedom, people can be wrong but they can never be collectively implicated in structures of false knowledge. The result is that intellectual freedom remains understood solely as an individual concern, and the role of libraries at most to correct error, but never to engage in the relationships between knowledge, false ideas, and power.”

Knowledges are created from many places, and generated in the context of information being produced by and passed on by people.  And our reactions to information, and navigation of various kinds of knowledge, are informed by our relationships to the people we associate with the information.  So in our current situation where misinformation is rampant and putting public health at risk, we need to sit with the likelihood that more information is not going to fix things.    

Several years ago I participated in the Visitors and Residents project, researching student info seeking behavior.  We interviewed first year students who often cited their parents, their friends, roommates, as people they talked to while doing their class papers.  It wasn’t until their second or third year that they started citing professors, and occasionally library workers.  Why?

Because those people were no longer strangers to them

My  current research during the pandemic involves interviewing students  as a part of a Jisc project in the UK, and what they are telling me they miss in the pandemic is interactivity.  They say they want to be on campus in lecture halls, so they can talk to their lecturers before and after class,  So that their professors can see their faces and maybe tell when they are confused and pause, or explain, or repeat themselves.  They want to be able to meet with classmates in the library, or in cafes, to talk, and connect, and “have fun” as a part of their going to university.  They talk about how hard it is to feel engaged online if all there is is content delivery/recorded lectures or uploaded articles in the course management system.  

And they clearly assume that the interactivity would be happening more in physical spaces, because they have experienced how hard it is for interactivity to be programmed into university experiences that still prioritize content delivery in digital contexts.  This is not to say such interactivity is impossible (think about online gaming, messageboards, dating sites–online interactivity is everywhere!)–just that universities are clearly experiencing barriers to providing it.  One of those might be their failure to fund full-time expertise in online environments.  

It’s possible to do this work, of building connections online–one example of people with expertise trying to help can be found in the work of  Mia Zamora, Maha Bali, and Autumm Caines at Equity Unbound.  

Attendance alone has never been evidence that your students were learning.  It was all the other things that happen in classrooms, and out of classrooms.  It was always stuff you couldn’t see.  We have never been able to bear witness to all of the processes that contribute to students’ learning.  So, why should we try now?

We are coping, poorly, with what is out of our control (the pandemic, our labor situation, our students’ attention) with the idea that we could control and capture some of what is going on, via surveillance and analytics.

But:  control is not care.

Control is not teaching.

And active learning and teaching practice shows us that it is in the letting go of our control that we can effectively curate environments for learning that are generative, just, and caring.

So we need to not mistake student engagement with systems (like presence in the LMS, or library catalogs) for student engagement with processes.  And need to think about what we could be offering students instead of what Jeffrey Moro has called “cop shit:”

“Like any product, cop shit claims to solve a problem. We might express that problem like this: the work of managing a classroom, at all its levels, is increasingly complex and fraught, full of poorly defined standards, distractions to our students’ attentions, and new opportunities for grift. Cop shit, so cop shit argues, solves these problems by bringing order to the classroom. Cop shit defines parameters. Cop shit ensures compliance. Cop shit gives students and teachers alike instant feedback in the form of legible metrics.”

You need to be human to students and colleagues, and they need to be human to you.  That means no dehumanizing practices in already challenging spaces.  No proctoring, No AI, no predictive analytics, no “engagement metrics.”  These numbers and metrics give the illusion of knowledge.

The work of our classrooms, and our libraries, digital and otherwise, needs to be at least as much around relationship building as it is around information wrangling.  And in building those relationships we can move towards collaborative models of scholarship and teaching, where no one person is the Star of the Show, but where we as a team can provide the kind of environments our students need, and that we need too, for critical and effective scholarly practices.

This is not a “silver lining” but work we have always needed to do.  The responsibility for us as instructors and educators is to have and gather information about these systems on behalf of our students, so that we might refuse on their behalf.  We cannot expect students to do all of the work of protecting themselves from unnecessary quantification and surveillance, from their position.  Where we have power, we need to use it for them.  And for our precarious and adjunct colleagues who do not have access to the power to refuse.

I’d point to this example of refusal from Dearborn, MI as inspiration for what is possible.  

Think about:  are you who work in the library embedded in relationships across campus that make you part of the trusted network of students and faculty?  

Which people are used to and comfortable with the things we needed to change, and who want to “go back” to that place of comfort for them?  Whose comfort is determinative in our choices going forward?  Whose discomfort doesn’t matter?  Which student voices are heard, when talking about whether we “should” be back on campus, or even what “on campus” means?  Which people did we always need to listen to more?

The motivation of information literacy work cannot be “the value of libraries”–one-shots are not a measure of importance, and might in fact be the opposite.  The motivations need to be the needs of your community and especially the most vulnerable.  We need to care for our communities more than we care about the library.

An institutional agenda that is built on social justice and Black feminist ethics of care requires paying attention to the impact of misinformation on people’s lives, not both-sidesing things via debate or “neutral” free speech platforming.

Because who gets to speak is historically about who has the power to be speaking.  And we need to start reframing our attention around who should be heard.   Rodrigo Ochigame writes of liberation theology in LIS and notes:  

“The remarkable innovation of the Brazilian liberation theologians is that they moved beyond a narrow focus on free speech and toward a politics of audibility. The theologians understood that the problem is not just whether one is free to speak, but whose voices one can hear and which listeners one’s voice can reach. “

One of the points I am trying to make is that even when we get to be back in physical spaces together, we need to continue to do the work of building and maintaining relationships, and recognizing and engaging with knowledges, not just information.  And we need to listen to vulnerable people, we need to listen to the people for whom the systems in which we operate were not originally built.  We always needed to be listening to disabled people when they told us what they needed.  We historically have not, or have done the minimum to be ADA compliant.   We always needed to listen to Black women, when they told us what white supremacy was doing to students, to communities, to our entire country.  We historically have not, because misogynoir is a powerful force.  We have always needed to listen to the “firsts” at universities, and not approach them as the ones with the deficit to be remedied.  We should hear them as the ones who can tell us what universities should be doing to support students, but don’t, because universities are built for students privileged enough to be OK without that institutional support.

So many people have died since March 2020.  In the US alone we have lost more than half a million people, and so many of those people should still be here, these deaths were largely preventable.  And before the pandemic people were dying, especially Black people, from police violence, and medical malpractice, and the impact of racism on their health, and ability to move freely through the world.  We cannot value Black people, brown people, or Indigenous people only once their story has ended, or when it contains trauma.  

The information we value, and the knowledges we recognize, are generated by people we value, and also about people we value. 

This is work, even with all the chaos around us, that we always should have been doing.  Whatever else has changed, and will change, that work and the need for it will not.

So what are we going to do?


Birhane, Abeba. (2021) “Algorithmic injustice: a relational ethics approach” Patterns, 2(2)

Caines, Autumm (2021) “The Weaponization of Care”  Real Life.   May 24.

Caulfield, Mike (2019)  “SIFT:  The Four Moves”  (Blog post).  June 19.

Critical Disinformation Studies (syllabus) 

Duarte, Marisa Elena & Miranda Belarde-Lewis (2015) Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies, Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 53:5-6, 677-702

Ellenwood, David (2020)  “  Information has Value:  The Political Economy of Information Capitalism”  In the Library with the Lead Pipe, Aug 19.

Hao, Karen (2021)   “How Facebook got addicted to spreading misinformation“  MIT Technology Review, March 11.

Kreiss, Daniel and Shannon McGregor “Polarization Isn’t America’s Biggest Problem—or Facebook’s” Wired, April 5, 2021

Moro, Jeffrey (2020) “Against Cop Shit”  (blog post) 13 February. 

Ochigame, Rodrigo (2020)  “Informatics of the Oppressed”  Logic, Issue 11 (Care), August.

Pagowsky, N. (2021). The Contested One-Shot: Deconstructing Power Structures to Imagine New Futures. College & Research Libraries, 82(3), 300. doi:

Popovich, Sam (2021)  “Canadian Librarianship and the Politics of Recognition”  Partnership 16(1)

Sarah, and  Autumm Caines, Christopher Casey, Belen Garcia de Hurtado, Jessica Riviere, Alfonso Sintjago, Carla Vecchiola (2021)  “What Happens When You Close the Door on Remote Proctoring? Moving Toward Authentic Assessments with a People-Centered Approach”  Volume 39, Issue 3: Educational Development in the Time of Crises, Spring.

Scheeres, Julia (2014) “Escape from Jonestown”  Longreads.  November 12.  

Seeber, Kevin (2018) “Teaching CRAAP to Robots:  Artificial Intelligence, False Binaries, and Implications for Information Literacy”  Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium, University of Arizona, November.

(2017)  “Wiretaps and CRAAP”  (Blog post)  March 18.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai   (2012)  Decolonizing Methodologies, second edition.  Zed Books:  London and New York.

Wade, Carrie (2020) “No Answers, Only Questions: The false fight against fake news”  (Blog post 576)  Sept 22.

(2018) “I am not your Fake News Savior” (Blog post 150) March 8.

How are Things

Tomorrow is a Friday, the Friday when my original plane ticket to come home from the UK had me scheduled to fly. I still have the “fly home” reminder on my digital calendar. And my calendar hanging in my kitchen recently looked like this.

These tweets show contrasting views of my wall calendar, a filled in February and a blank March.

On Monday, March 23rd, I wrote the following, trying to capture something about what was happening:

“I am writing this on a Monday, it is one week since I left my hotel in London and made my way to Heathrow, to catch the last direct flight to my home in North Carolina.  I had spent the weekend trying to keep up with the news about coronavirus, and the national and international responses to the pandemic. I went from “maybe it’s safer to wait until April 10th, to use my current ticket to go back home once things are more calm” to “if I don’t leave before midnight on March 16th I might not get to fly back to the US for months.”  So, I cried, changed my ticket, and went home. I was luckier than many, in having only been in England since early March, I was allowed to fly into my home airport rather than into one of the 13 airports now designated for processing of any international arrivals. I was lucky, in that I got to go home.

I was in the UK to do work, to run workshops and have meetings with people I had been doing remote work with for the previous several months.  I have, for the last few years, been working as a consultant with universities, and education and library organizations. I do a great deal of my work online, because I work across locations, and with people who are not here in my home city.  I have conversations, I write collaboratively, I conduct interviews, I joke and I play in various online places. I am deeply familiar and comfortable with working remotely, at a distance, online.

But my work is also designed at some point to have a face to face component.  We work online after the in-person work to write a report, or we work online before the in-person work to prepare a workshop, generate interview questions, decide what the panel discussion needs to address.  I had been preparing a full month’s worth of work in March 2020–six workshops for two different organizations, a panel discussion, one site visit, and an interview-based project. When the UCU strikes were announced, I made sure to schedule working days that would not violate picket lines.  By the end of my first week of work, it was clear that I should also have been paying attention to the pandemic, and that it was going to change everyone’s plans, not just mine.

So I spent some time working on remote alternatives to some of the workshops, and offering to cancel or postpone others.  I offered to train people to deliver what I had prepared, as if the barrier was simply going to be my presence or absence, not the wholesale absence of people from their workplaces, because they were sheltering at home from the pandemic.

In the end, all of the work was cancelled (let us say postponed, let us be hopeful there will be things to do again) because if I did not leave I would not get home.  And the fact is, while I think the work I was trying to do would have been useful, it does not take precedence over people trying to weather the pandemic, manage the panic of these times, take care of their loved ones, and hold on to hope for the future.  I don’t know what is going to happen next. It’s only been a week since my personal part of the world fell apart. It’s too early to have expectations. I do have hopes, and fears, as usual.

The kind of work I do is led by the organizations who bring me in–I was working on strategic plans, research into teaching and learning practices, I was helping teach people how to do research of their own to learn more about academic practices in their own organizations.  I hope that there will be chances to facilitate that kind of work again, and I know that there will be a need to figure out what teaching, learning, and research needs to look like after this is all over. There was a great deal in our previous “normal” that was unhealthy and unsustainable.”

Over the last few years I have been so lucky, so privileged, and built a world of work for myself where I could travel internationally, speak to people online, and do work across a wide distribution of territory.  That could all fundamentally change. There will be fundamental changes. And they all pale in comparison to the disaster that is my country’s political situation, the global crisis made far worse by political choices, racism, and inequality, and the people who are dying now because of it.

How are things? I am staying home, because I can. I am listening to a lot of podcasts.  I am watching escapist TV with my people at home.  I am cooking, and going for (solitary) walks on our local greenway.  I am writing my representatives in Congress, and to libraries that are still open and putting their workers in danger, and staying connected to far-flung people with the internet.  I am crying. I am angry. I am scared. I am holding fragile plans for the future.  

How are you?

“Back to Normal”
Image by jonmdyson from Pixabay

It’s a terrible phrase, I think.  “Back to normal.” It assumes that normal is a thing.  It assumes that people who go through trauma and disasters can just “go back” to what was before.  It is a phrase invoked by some in the middle of a crisis, thinking of getting on the other side of it, “when we get back to normal.”

I have been thinking about the visit I got to do, at Bletchley Park last year.  I knew some of the story of the code-breaking, and in particular the role that women played during World War II not just in Nazi code-breaking but in doing all manner of work that simply had to be done by women because men were at war.  In the US, Rosie the Riveter represented not just the spirit of US support for the war effort, but the women who were working in factories and all the other places where men worked before the war. As I walked through Bletchley Park, seeing the artifacts representing the women who worked there–I was especially touched by the cardigans draped over the desk chairs–I was struck by how not-transformative, in terms of gender roles and work, World War II was.  When the war was over, people wanted to go “back to normal”–for white middle class families, and some white working class families, women working out of the home was a wartime thing, a crisis thing, a thing not to be celebrated or to be thought about in terms of what else might be possible, but something to put aside now that things were “back to normal” (as if post-war anything could be normal). 

I mean, I deeply understand and sympathize with wanting for things to be back to normal.  I wish I knew what normal even was anymore, but it seems like what people say when they mean they were comfortable.

So already, in the middle of all of this we are experiencing now, a pandemic, people struggling to protect each other, educators turning to (or forced to turn to) digital tools and places and processes to try to finish off a term completely disrupted (in the traditional sense, not the edtech sense) by current events–

In the middle of all this I am hearing and seeing some people wondering aloud if the changes that people are going to have to engage in, the ways that people need to use digital in particular, might permanently change some people’s practices.  Maybe people will embed new ways of digital working in their teaching practices. I keep reading the phrase “online pivot.” There’s a solidity to that that I am skeptical of.

And maybe some will.  But I can’t help thinking, that digital turned to in a time of crisis is potentially indelibly associated with crisis.  It feels like emergency measures, not everyday practice.

When we get on the other side of this, when we are between crises, when people want to “go back to normal” what happens to the new things they engaged with?  And framing this in terms of choices is wrong, of course. Institutions will take note of what they can and can’t take advantage of. There has and continues to be a (willful?) misunderstanding of what digital means in terms of labor and time (it isn’t less of anything, if you want the work to be done well).  I don’t know (none of us do) what lessons we get to learn from going through all of this.

I am just thinking, that for some people, digitally focused practice is not “normal.”  And some will be happy to get “back to normal,” further away from digital and also further away from the feeling of emergency, and crisis–not because they didn’t learn anything, but because they want to be comfortable.

Being Human Online in a Time of Crisis

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

Troilus and Cressida

co-authored with Lawrie Phipps and Peter Bryant

There’s been worry, anger, fear, snark, genuine excitement and lots of emotions in between and around those as responses to what educators need to do to interact with each other, and their students, now that we are well and truly in the throes of the global impact of COVID-19.

Conversations across education see-saw back and forth between “Here’s a list of tools you can use to put your class online” and “Here’s how I care for my students and I do when I teach online.”  

What we learned while interviewing UK teachers in higher and further education about the choices they make around teaching, was that decisions about technology primarily emerged from teaching and pastoral care needs, rather than some abstracted notion of technology being “better” or “21st century.”  

Let’s be clear from the outset: needing to move your interactions with your students to an online-only environment is not the same thing as “my campus needs to buy technology x”  As we, and many others have said before, Digital is People – EdTech is not the solution you are looking for; spending millions of dollars on a system is a waste of money if you are not supporting a change in the culture that empowers people to change their practice.

We know that many campuses already have tools for things like videoconferencing, document sharing, online synchronous and asynchronous discussions etc. You will not be surprised to hear one of us (Lawrie) state the obvious – if you have Office365 you already have a lot of tools that will help you support and engage with others online!  

Small groups can talk on conference calls, if videoconferencing is not an option. The specific tools are much less important than knowing that firstly something is possible and secondly you are not alone in trying that something.  

People have been busy in the social networks reassuring folks who have never taken their practices online that it’s not only possible to do that, but also possible to do well, with the human needs of students and faculty and staff in mind.

The resources in “Teaching in the Context of COVID-19,” gathered together by the HASTAC group and Cathy Davidson are marvelous precisely because they are not just lists of tools.  Here are collected ideas about setting expectations (yours and your students’), teaching remotely in a variety of situations (not just emergencies), accessibility (concerns for which have driven many areas of digital teaching and learning practices for some time), and communities that have been working around online and digital learning for decades.

Our personal social media timelines are full of people offering their expertise in teaching online–it’s easiest in this context to point to some from Twitter, but they have been seen in Facebook and also in the form of emails to various lists.

Laura Gibbs, for instance, has been writing reassuringly and with authority about online teaching and learning since long before this crisis, and has been on Twitter offering support and advice

There are plenty of examples we could share, but what is striking to us is seeing people spend as much if not more time talking about supporting students, establishing trust, cultivating engagement, and being interactive (synchronously and asynchronously) than they do about “this is a tool I use.”  

Pointing to specific tools, in particular tools that institutions do not have access to yet but could purchase a contract for, is something particular vendors have been doing since January, and it does not speak well for those companies that they see this crisis as a revenue opportunity rather than a moment for help, collaboration and sharing.

So when we were talking about writing a blogpost thinking this through, and maybe writing up a collation of the kinds of pro-social behaviors we saw being advocated for, we were scooped by the work of Peter Bryant, who has been working on a COVID-19 response plan from his position in Australia since January.  As was identified in Lawrie’s last post, on how various Australian colleagues were beginning to establish a response to Covid19, they were very aware of the potential impact; and so were vendors who seem to be circling Australian senior managers like great white sharks. 

This morning we (Lawrie and Donna) spent 90 minutes talking to Peter Bryant about what he is seeing from Australian universities responding to the crisis. Peter has developed a fantastic response, it is focused on the cultural change that needs to happen, but grounded in the short term needs of the staff and students, and pragmatic strategies that are in place to mitigate the impact of Covid19.  

Here is Peter’s strategy.

Here in the UK we (don’t be confused, reader – I, Donna, am here working for the month–good timing on my part, don’t you think?) are mindful that this health crisis is also taking place against the backdrop of labor strikes; and a problem in the US and the UK with contingent labor, overwork, and too much placed on too few full time workers.  

So yes, while this might indeed be an opportunity for online teaching and learning to shine, it should not be the opportunity that some of the powers-that-be were looking for to further exploit the labor of already exploited workers in HE and FE. 

Calls for people to actually have time off, sick time where they are not expected to work, room to rest and recover mentally from the stresses of so much that is going on, these calls should be listened to and met with more than just good intentions and hand waving about “all the work we need to do.”

We are also hopeful in the resource sharing we already see–it’s so important to draw and expand on the work already happening within the network, because there are too few people available to work on this complicated problem of wrangling teaching and learning across myriad institutions, at a distance and on a scale not attempted before.  Sharing on social media, on blogs, in emails, is how we can give each other more capacity for this work than we would otherwise have working in isolation. Digital places and tools mean that our staff, our students, and we ourselves do not have to be alone, even if some of us are in quarantine.

Who Gets to Have Agency?

Trinity College, Hartford CT

I was pleased to have the chance to visit Trinity College, thanks to the invitation of Jason Jones.  I was asked to talk about “Agency” which I something I’ve been writing about and around most of this year, I think.  As usual this is my attempt to represent in writing what I said in the room.


Trinity College is located just west of the Kwinitekw River, within Wangunk homelands. The colonial city of Hartford occupies lands that were called Suckiaug, or black fertile earth in Algonquian. The river valley has sustained countless generations of Wangunk people, joined by indigenous communities from across the globe, including within Hartford’s Andean, Central American, and Caribbean communities. The land currently known as Connecticut is the territory of the Mohegan , Mashantucket Pequot, Eastern Pequot, Schaghticoke, Golden Hill Paugussett and Nipmuc Peoples,

I want to begin by telling the story of Bryan Short.  You should read his own account of his experiences with submitting and FOI request for his data as collected by the learning management system (LMS) at the University of British Columbia.  If you do nothing else, watch this video he produced on the collection of student data.  Bryan was kind enough to talk to me earlier this year about what happened in his final year at UBC. 

He was working at Digital Tattoo, which is a learning resource for students to teach about digital identity, and how what they do online might impact in the face to face world.  He had a supervisor who encouraged him to look at the LMS, asking questions specifically about what data gets collected, and how it might be used

Bryan was funded through the center for teaching, learning and technology (the part of the university responsible for the LMS).  He encountered people in the CLT who were encouraging a critical take, as well as people (in particular those managing the LMS directly) who clearly felt a bit defensive about his line of inquiry.  He also recalls people in central IT services who, while worried about speaking out themselves, encouraged Bryan to be critical.  

Bryan looked into the Terms of Use, and figured that the only way to learn comprehensively what was going on with his data was to submit an FOI request.  And this turned out to be a big hassle because they his University didn’t actually have a process in place–suggesting to him that the expectation was that no student would actually ask about their data in the first place.

Bryan suggested that the lack of process, what seems to be a lack of caring about students and their data, was actually a lack of disclosure and transparency.  

Over the course of trying to get his university to share what was happening with the data their systems were collecting on him, Bryan never felt comprehensively supported in his interrogation of the process.  He encountered people who saw learning analytics as a way to help students. When “more forthright” instructors helped him ask questions by showing him the LMS dashboard that instructors could use for participation, he took that information to administrators, who were dismissive about whether the data collected would be actually be used (which does suggest we should be asking why collect data that is unlikely to be used…)

Bryan’s experience was that UBC was pushing back against his requests.  They blew through a few deadlines, implying that his requests were unreasonable.  Their pushing away of him made him angry, and motivated him to continue. He was invited to speak to grad students at the iSchool, and he encouraged people in the class to fill out the forms and ask for the data because he wanted to see if multiple requests would really break the university’s ability to comply.  

As he spoke to me about this, he remembered feeling tenuous about the project.  He even received emails from supporters that suggested that they were being pressured about what he was doing, and that he might get pulled into meetings about it.

At the end of his time at UBC, the university switched their LMS from Blackboard to Canvas.  For his final online-only class, he chose not to agree to the terms of use for Canvas. That created tension between him and his instructors, who then had to email materials to him individually.  He also couldn’t engage in class discussions with his classmates, and in the end of course this impacted his ability to be successful in classes, and he didn’t get same experience that others were getting.

Bryan filed another FOI for UBC and Instructure, and didn’t get information on time to do anything with it as a Digital Tattoo employee.  The day he received the information was his last day at Digital Tattoo, and there could be no followup on his part.  

Bryan remembers hearing instructors and administrators say that the data collected would “help us help you!” but when he asked for evidence that the data collection actually helped struggling students, there was nothing.  There were, however, clear benefits for administrators wanting to manage and report on student activities.  

So let’s think about this, and ask the question:

Who gets to say no?

I read and hear versions of “We have all this data we should do something with it”  and “Help us help you” with no stories at all about students who were actually helped by massive data collection.  When questioned, many suggest they want this data because they are coming from a place of care.

At Trinity, there is a merged unit–IT and Library, and as such is a unit in charge of multiple systems that collect and store student and faculty data, 

And historically libraries didn’t keep all this data, because of concern about patron privacy and protection

The potential of the systems we have now to collect and surveill makes it easy to do market- imperative-driven things such as offer suggestions, create profiles, and there is plenty of pressure to do so.

How much agency gets surrendered to these systems, to the predictive algorithm?

Chris Gilliard (2016)  and Safiya Noble’s (2018) works provide two important cautions about the ways in which digital structures reproduce and amplify inequality.  Technology is not neutral, and the digital tools, platforms, and places with which we engage, online or off, are made by people, and informed by our societies, and all of the biases therein.

This, then  is an important educational consideration:  the tension between a “market forces” argument to use the data to predict and prescribe actions, vs. an approach that centers pedagogy, process, and potential, and resists prediction in favor of providing opportunities to see what might happen.

In my work as an anthropologist in libraries and universities I have contributed to physical space and web redesigns.  There’s been an interesting tension between “find problems and fix them” and “explore how people study/do research/teach/write”  I write about it with Andrew Asher in our article “Ethnographish.”  In particular, we point to the culture of libraries (and the nature of institutions generally) as resistant to open-ended work that doesn’t have a concrete problem to solve:

“Libraries are notoriously risk averse. This default conservative approach is made worse by anxiety and defensiveness around the role of libraries and pressures to demonstrate value. Within this larger context, where the value of libraries is already under question, open-ended, exploratory ethnographic work can feel risky.“

Lanclos and Asher (2016)

I think these are related, the tensions I am identifying here. The contrast between treating students as problems to be solved (via predictive analytics) and treating students as people engaging in complex processes within education, emerges from a similar place that generates the contrast between “problem-solving” and open-ended exploration of behavior.  These are different parts of the same conversation around “What is the role of education?”

“A college education, whether it is a night class in auto mechanics or a graduate degree in physics, has become an individual good.  This is in contrast to the way we once thought of higher (or post-secondary) education as a collective good, one that benefits society when people have the opportunity to develop their highest abilities through formal learning.” 

(Tressie McMillan Cottom, LowerEd 2017, p. 13)

Whether you think education is about people acquiring credentials (a commodity) or if it’s a collective good, important to society as a whole, will likely play a part in whether you think that people working in institutions should primarily problem-solve, or work in less transactional ways to gain insight.  

In a lot of design work I see the use of Personas, and there are some interesting issues around the use of personas and the extent to which they do or do not get directly reflected in designs.

What I have also  found in my own more recent work, as someone brought in to various higher and further education contexts to help people reflect on and develop their personal and professional practices, is that identity categories are quickly taken up by people.  

We are primed in a variety of ways by diagnostic tests and also “fun” internet quizzes to label themselves.  “I’m ENTJ” “I’m 40 but my social media age is 16” I’ve spent a lot of time in workshops trying to manage people’s anxieties around what they think these categories say about them as people.  They apologise for their practice, because they can read the judgements embedded in the labels–”capable” “novice” “1st year” “1st gen”

 We have people deciding that they were more or less capable depending on the label they felt fit them. 

Early in my time doing work in libraries, I was tasked with some web usability testing.  We generated tasklists, reported on the efficacy of web environments, etc. It was clear to me in the work that people didn’t sit down to a website and say “I’m a first year, and I’m using this website”  They sat down and said “I’m writing a paper, I need to find sources.” So I was perplexed at the use of personas in web UX, because in the course of my research I saw people making meaning of their encounters with the web environment based on what they wanted and needed to do, first and foremost–not who they were.  What I was told, when I asked, was that personas are useful to have in meetings where you need to prove that “users are people.”

(Sidenote–I’d rather start with “people” than “users” especially in a library context because your community includes  people who aren’t necessarily visible “users” of any of your spaces)

When UX workers use personas, to frame our testing of websites, we have capitulated to a system that is already disassociated from people, and all their human complexity.  The utility of personas is a symptom of the lack of control that libraries and librarians have over the systems they use. How absurd to have to make the argument that these websites and databases will be used by people.  The insidious effect of persona-based arguments is to further limit what we think people are likely to do as particular categories. Are first year students going to do research? Do undergraduates need to know about interlibrary lending?  Do members of academic staff need to know how to contact a librarians? Why or why not? If we had task-based organizing structures in our websites, it wouldn’t matter who was using them. It would matter far more what they are trying to do.  

So I have a problem, clearly, with using personas as a design principle for organizing your spaces around identity

I think it’s important to consider:   what are your systems and structures communicating to the people in your library about what is possible?  Is it organized around who you think they are?  

Or about what they can do?

One of those provides more room for choice and agency than the other

This is not to say that identity doesn’t matter–but what we want is for identity to come from, and inform how the students wants to work and what their work means.  We should not want for identity to be a controlling category that limits what is possible.

Who is to say that undergraduates don’t need similar kinds of access to website space that faculty do?  At some point both of them are writing, both of them are researching. The difference is in how deep a dive they do, not in the basic activities.

So, my advocacy would be for practice-based personas, if you are going to use them.  Why?

Because it provides space for agency.  

All year I have been giving talks that revolve around deCerteau’s distinction between kinds of agency, in particular tactical vs. strategic agency.  

I have mentioned refusal and we can use deCerteau’s framing to distinguish between tactical refusal, which comes from from a position of no power, and strategic refusal, which can be engaged in by people with power.    

Let’s think about our community members.–and here I will be indulging in a bit of personas

What does student agency look like? They can make choices.  But there are often constraints around those choices. It’s worth asking, for example, in the case of learning analytics, the extent to which a student could actually choose not to participate in the systems that harvest data, and still successfully navigate to their degree.  

Faculty have more institutional power than students, and sometimes more than non-faculty staff at universities and colleges, but they are themselves embedded in their own webs of power and influence, and don’t always get to be strategic.  For example, they technically have choices about when and where to publish, but there are tenure and promotion requirements that constrain their choices. Even if faculty value Open Access and all it stands for, if they want tenure might have to submit their work to journals that are closed and paywalled, because that is what success looks like in their discipline.

Faculty can also be limited in what and how they teach, as I witnessed when a junior faculty member at a university was discouraged from teaching in active learning classrooms because they “can’t teach as much content that way.” Regardless of that faculty member’s own perspective on teaching and effectiveness, they only had so much power to engage.  It’s also worth remembering that any faculty member who is not a cisgendered heterosexual white man is even more vulnerable, and in need of care.

This is all about power and culture as well as practice.  

So, what are people working in education, in IT and libraries,  to do?

Let’s think again about orienting to practice, rather than identity.  I find this useful not just as an anthropologist, but as someone concerned with social justice, and the ways that institutions can use identity to constrain and cap the potential that people have to do unexpected things.

Approaches to digital literacy can be similarly constraining–when we test people and put them in categories, that offers fewer options (and far less imagination) than assuming that everyone has a practice, but also everyone (faculty and students alike) upon arrival into an institution could use some information and help with How Things Are Done Here and What Is Possible.

So in an ideal world, libraries and educational IT (and the universities and colleges in which they are embedded) would recognize the range of practices involved in scholarship (reading, writing, processing, communicating, researching, testing, etc) and then also have the resources to configure places (digital and physical) where these things are not only possible, but those possibilities are signaled to their community members.

This is not the same thing as “freshmen go here”

This is about flexibility, and communication, and also the ability to let go of what people “should” be doing when they do scholarship.  While there are wrong ways to do it, there is also a spectrum of right ways, and much of that has to do with accommodating the ways that people need to fit being a scholar into the rest of their lives.

I want to point here to the work I got to do on the lives of commuter students.  In that project, we interviewed student-parents about their academic practices, and where they studied (and why) to gain insight into their lives.  We got to use this work to make an argument for a family-friendly study room in the library, and then evaluate the initial impact that room might have on the lives of students.  This wasn’t a project that was reacting to a “demand” for it–there wasn’t a sense among students before we started this project that this was work the library could do. In connecting with students, and listening to the stories of trying to carve time out to study in the course of their complex lives, we worked towards giving our students more choices.  This was the library Facilitating strategic agency : using the power that the library and education technology can have to create spaces for students to discover and engage in the kinds of practices that work well for them.

Open-ended ethnography can be a way to create space for us to imagine ways to allow agency in educational spaces.  Exploratory work that isn’t just about “solving problems” can lead to insight, and allow library and IT workers agency too, to go beyond instrumental approaches, to move away from purely tactical, reactive approaches, and to gain access to more strategic levels of iterative planning and decision making

Resources and Further Reading

Cottom, Tressie McMillan. Lower ed: The troubling rise of for-profit colleges in the new economy. The New Press,  2017.

Chris Gilliard and Hugh Kulik “Digital Redlining, Access and Privacy”  Privacy Blog, Common Sense Education, May 24, 2016, 

Lanclos, Donna, and Andrew D. Asher. “‘Ethnographish’: The State of the Ethnography in Libraries.” Weave: Journal of Library User Experience 1.5 (2016).;rgn=main

de Certeau, Michel, and Steven Rendall. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, 2011.

Lanclos, Donna and Winterling, Rachael “Making Space in the Library for Student Parents” in  Academic Libraries for Commuter Students: Research-Based Strategies, Mariana Regalado and Maura A. Smale, eds. (33-51).  (Chicago: American Library Association) 2018.

Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. NYU Press, 2018.

Gaining insight over fixing problems: how open ended research can teach us what we need to know

November sunset in Guelph

I was so pleased to be invited to the University of Guelph library by Karen Nicholson and Ali Versluis to give a talk and also to talk with people in the library about user experience and ethnographic research in library and education contexts. This was the last talk that I gave during my November Tour, and I think it came together the most solidly of the four (there’s something to be said for the repetition of experiences in getting things right, note to self). I would also like to thank Chris Gilliard for reading early drafts of this, and helping me clarify some of my argument. Thanks to Jason Davies for the Mary Douglas citation. And credit as well to Andrew Asher, who was my research partner in some of the work I talk about here.

I wrote this talk at my home, in what is now called North Carolina, in the settler-occupied land of the Catawba and Cherokee people.   I am a Cajun woman, and my people are a settler people from the Bayou Teche, on Chitimacha land in what is now called Louisiana.  

I want to  acknowledge here the Attawandaron people on whose traditional territory the University of Guelph stands and offer my respect to the neighboring Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Métis.  


A few years ago, Andrew Asher and I were hired to do a project for an international non-profit that provides electronic resources to libraries in less well resourced countries.  The organization was aware that there were low use and high use institutions that they were providing resources for, and wanted to know why that difference was there.

So we interviewed people in Zambia, and in Kyrgyzstan, in places that this organization told us didn’t have connectivity issues.  While there might not have been connectivity issues on the university campuses, the practical experience of connectivity was not consistent, as people were not always on campus.  As researchers, we encountered this as a problem early on, for example not being able to use Skype for interviews because of connectivity problems. We ended up doing a mix of Skype to call mobile phones, and WhatsApp to conduct interviews in locations where the internet was not reliable for our participants. 

Among the things we found out, in the course of our research, was things like in Zambia,  people who wanted to have faster internet bought ISP “rabbits,” to gain access off campus. We interviewed a  PhD candidate in Engineering who made the point that unless you were on the university network (Eduroam), you could not use university materials (such as library resources).  Therefore, using the faster, more reliable (but more expensive) rabbit modems in Zambia locked students and staff out of their institutional resources.  

We interviewed a Lecturer in Education with similar issues, even though he was at a “high-use” institution.  It wasn’t that the subscriptions weren’t there, or the resources not theoretically available, but that connectivity made those resources less useful, as they were difficult to get to:

“Yes, like I was telling you, either you subscribe to some journal publisher and because of poor connectivity, you may not get access to those services.  So it’s basically attributed to poor connectivity. Not that the institution does not have the information, the information could be there but the connectivity limits us from getting access.  Cause the system gets to be slow.”

This scholar did point out that doesn’t happen too frequently, so he wasn’t going to complain too much about access.  But he highlighted what’s at stake when those failures happen: he can’t do his work.  

“Basically, I can just say that is it poor connectivity and when there’s poor connectivity and there’s something that I urgently need to confirm because like when I’m reading a journal article where somebody has cited somebody.  There are times when I actually need to read the other article or if it’s a book which they refer to so I’ll probably have to go online to download and if there is not connectivity then that becomes a problem.”

Our research revealed that use of resources (or lack thereof) wasn’t just about connectivity, it was also about culture, and the separation that scholars experienced from the people working in the library.  One librarian we spoke to made it clear that the levels of authentication that scholars found burdensome were there on purpose to make sure that only the right people could have access to them. That, however, translated to even the “right people” using those resources less, or not at all, preferring to spend their precious internet time on getting to resources that were more easily accessible, even if not institutionally provided.

In Kyrgyzstan, one scholar assumed that because the physical collection in the library was out of date and inadequate, the electronic resources would be, too.

So, scholars in these two countries, in both “high” and “low” use institutions according to the non-profit, acquired and shared resources via printing, email, and thumb drives more often (and more reliably) than getting resources online via the resources paid for and provided by the organization.  

The implications we drew out were as follows:

  • Providing materials “online” is not the same as providing “access” when the internet is not a sure thing.  Also, having a connection is not the same thing as being connected enough to make using online resources a feasible option. There are many barriers to accessing library materials that are outside of the library’s own systems and infrastructure.  
  • Scholars find what they need, and what is accessible–if they Google something and it’s closed-access, they move on until they find something they can use.  The existence of the materials does not necessarily translate into its use.  
  • The disconnect of the library from the research workflow of the scholars interviewed here was striking, especially in the context of their awareness for the need for training, and knowledge about how to better navigate useful resources.  For example, one Lecturer in Education was at her current institution for 4 years before she knew about electronic resources, and then it wasn’t until she had started her PhD studies at another institution.

And our recommendations were things like:  pay attention to physical infrastructure when you offer online resources to institutions.  Consider offering resources in digital forms that aren’t just online. Think about facilitating more networking and connections between the people in the library and their surrounding community of scholars.  Basically, we told them context matters, and that the non-profit, in providing online resources, was operating as if they were in a vacuum.

Our report had to do with infrastructure, economics, and the lives of the scholars (faculty and students)–The non-profit wanted a problem to fix, and in many ways that was reasonable–it cost money for them to provide these resources, and wanted to avoid wasting resources.  What we as researchers presented them with was an exploration of the contexts in which the people they were trying to help (via libraries) were restricted in what was or wasn’t possible.  

We did not provide them with a quick-fix solution.  In many ways, the questions they wanted to ask were inevitably going to have disappointing answers.  

And well, the qualitative work we did wasn’t satisfying, short-term, but I think it’s important nonetheless.

Why was our research unsatisfying? Well, to some extent, the reason is the culture of libraries.  

I will point again to the article “Ethnographish” that Andrew and I wrote.   We wrote it in a moment, several years into our collective work as anthropologists working in libraries, where we wanted to try to think critically about why the work we were doing looked the way it did.  And also why particular kinds of work (especially open-ended exploratory ethnography) was so hard for us to do.  

Our argument is:  open-ended exploratory research is a hard sell in libraries.  We see UX research not just because it’s useful, but because it’s finite, and in particular because it’s proposing to solve specific problems.

“Libraries are notoriously risk averse. This default conservative approach is made worse by anxiety and defensiveness around the role of libraries and pressures to demonstrate value. Within this larger context, where the value of libraries is already under question, open-ended, exploratory ethnographic work can feel risky.“ (Lanclos and Asher 2016)

I think that in positioning themselves as problem-solvers, libraries and library workers are positioning themselves in a tactical way.  DeCerteau’s distinction here between kinds of agency (tactical vs. strategy) is useful here, helping us think about the kinds of actors who are allowed choices given their structural position.  To what extend to libraries and library workers get to make decisions that aren’t just tactical, not just reactions to situations? How and when do libraries and library workers get to make strategic decisions?  Because that has to be more than just responding to demands and solving problems.  

A while ago I gave a talk at a CUNY event that advocated for the mixed-methods library.  Lots of assessment departments talk about (and some do) both qualitative and quantitative (though I still stand by my impression that a lot of qualitative stuff is UX-style “what is the problem” approaches.).  I gave that talk in 2014, and at the time, part of what I was pointing to was the need to get insights that numbers would not give us.  

For example, I worked with a university that participated in the Measuring Information Service Outcomes survey.  Some of the bar charts we can generate from this data look like this:

 We have all of these numbers, what do they mean?  What does “satisfied with the library” mean, anyway?  Can graphs like these tell us anything?  

In that talk 2014 I actually said “I don’t[ want to get rid of quantitative measures in libraries” but now in 2019 (and actually, way earlier than that) I decided it wasn’t my job to advocate for quantitative anything, and not just because lots of other people are already advocating for that.

Because now in 2019,  quantification and problem fixing orientations have landed us with learning analytics, and library analytics, and I think there’s a lot more at stake than “these bar charts don’t tell us enough” (which was bad enough).  We have arrived here in part because somewhere along the way arguments accompanied by numbers were interpreted as Most Persuasive (I think we get to thank Economists, as a discipline, for this, given their infiltration into popular news media as commentators).  

Being able to categorize people also feels like a constructive action, a first step towards knowing how to “help” people (and categories are certainly central to particular practices in librarianship, and yeah they come with their own troubled history, as anyone who’s read critical work on LOC or Dewey systems will attest).  

So let’s think about the impact of categorizing and quantifying academic work, including the work of libraries.  Let’s think about what we are doing when we put people into categories, and then make decisions about capability based on that.  And yeah. Pop culture quizzes, and even sometimes those management personality tests can be fun.

Where it all ceases to be fun is when decisions get made on your behalf based on the results.

Frameworks and quizzes and diagnostics (what I like to call the “Cosmo Quiz” school of professional development) are often deployed with the result that people decide what “type” they are to explain why they are doing things.  Pointing to individual “types” and motivations provides an easy end-run around organizational, structural, cultural circumstances that might also be the reasons for practice. Because then when there are problems, it is up to the individual to “fix it”

What are we doing when we encourage people to diagnose themselves, categorize themselves with these tools?  The underlying message is that they are a problem needing to be fixed (fixes to be determined after the results of the questionnaire are in)

The message is that who they are determines how capable they are.  The message is that there might be limits on their capabilities, based on who they are

The message is that we need to spend labor determining who people are before we offer them help.  Such messages work to limit and contain people, rather than making it easy for people to access the resources they need, and allow themselves to define themselves, for their identity to emerge from their practice, from their own definitions of self.

When UX workers use personas (another way of categorizing people) to frame our testing of websites, we have capitulated to a system that is already disassociated from people, and all their human complexity.  The insidious effect of persona-based arguments is to further limit what we think people are likely to do as particular categories. Are first year students going to do research? Do undergraduates need to know about interlibrary lending?  Do members of academic staff need to know how to contact a librarians?  Why or why not? If we had task-based organizing structures in our websites, it wouldn’t matter who was using them.  It would matter far more what they are trying to do.  

I am informed in this part of my argument by  anthropologist Mary Douglas on How Institutions Think, and in particular that institutions are socially and culturally constructed, and that they themselves structure knowledge and identity.  Douglas’ work allows us to think of personas and other kinds of personality test-categories as “patterns of authority”, not just ways of trying to make things clear, but as ways of reifying current structural inequalities, and categories that limit people and their potential. When institutions do the classifying the resulting patterns are authoritative ones, the profiles that suggest plans of action come at the expense of  individual agency, and implies that the institutional take on identity is the definitive one that determines future “success.” 

What are the connotations of the word “profile?”  If you have a “profile” that is something that suggests that people know who you are and are predicting your behavior.  We “profile” criminals. We “profile” suspects. People are unjustly “profiled” at border crossings because of the color of their skin, their accent, their dress. 

“Profiles” are the bread and butter of what Chris Gillard has called “digital redlining:” ”a set of education policies, investment decisions, and IT practices that actively create and maintain class boundaries through strictures that discriminate against specific groups.“  His work is at “the intersections of algorithmic filtering, broadband access, privacy, and surveillance, and how choices made at these intersections often combine to wall off information and limit opportunities for students.”

“Now, the task is to recognize how digital redlining is integrated into technologies, and especially education technologies, to produce the same kinds of discriminatory results. (Gilliard and Culik 2016) “

Chris gave in his recent Educause talk some examples of what he calls “EdTech WTF moments”

  • “Facemetrics tracks kids’ tablet use. Through the camera, patented technologies follow the kids’ eyes and determine if the child is reading, how carefully they are reading, and if they are tired. “You missed some paragraphs,” the application might suggest.
  • In a promotional video from BrainCo, Students sit at desks wearing electronic headbands that report EEG data back to a teacher’s dashboard, and that information purports to measure students’ attention levels. The video’s narrator explains: “School administrators can use big data analysis to determine when students are better able to concentrate (Gilliard 2019).”

One problem is that it’s possible to extract quantified behavioural data from systems, in a context (e.g., libraries) where quantified data is perceived as most persuasive 

What gets lost in quantification is not just the Why and How (quantification is really good with the What, and occasionally Where), but also the privacy, safety, and dignity of the people whose data you are extracting.  This is a “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” situation, especially when we consider our responsibility to people who are already over-surveilled, hypervisible, and structurally vulnerable (i.e., Black, brown, and Indigenous people)

Let’s look at this Guardian article, on student surveillance, and here I’m guided again by Chris Gilliard’s deep dive on this article

Basically, companies like Bark and Gaggle are using school worries about liability around school shootings and student suicides and bullying as a lever by which they gain access to the schools.  They sell “security” when what they are actually peddling is “surveillance.”  

In this article none of the concerned parties are talking about gun control, or human systems of care that can deal with mental health issues, address discrimination against LGBTQ+ kids, racial bias, and so on.  The companies are selling results that are not borne out by the research they hand wave towards. They are counting on people being too scared not to engage with these systems, because they feel helpless

(sound familiar?)

Read the damn thing yourself too, it’s terrifying to me:

And of course It gets worse–as I was writing this talk a bill was introduced by US Republican senators to make school engagement with this tech (and these tech companies) MANDATORY.

Thanks to Chris Gilliard and his work, I am also aware of Simone Browne’s work Dark Matters: on the Surveillance of Blackness.  In this book, she writes a black feminist, critical race studies informed take on surveillance studies.  She points particularly to the history of surveillance technology as being one that emerges from the white supremacist  need to police black people, black bodies. Her examples include enslavement trading practices of the 1800s, the tracking and control of enslaved people via paper permits and laws about carrying lanterns after dark, and she makes it clear that this history is relevant to current discussions of how we make people visible, in what circumstances, and why.  We cannot disentangle race and inequality from our discussions of these technologies, nor should we try to in a quest for “neutrality” or “objectivity.”

The surveilling gaze is institutionally white, and furthermore, as Browne demonstrates in her book, that the technologies and practices of surveillance have a deep history in the colonization and enslavement of black and indigenous people.  The history of current surveillance practices involves the production and policing of racialized categories of people, in particular blackness and black people, so that they can be controlled and exploited.  

We need to think too about the racist context in which data is generated and collected, as in the case with health care data used to generate algorithms intended to guide health care decisions.   In Ruha Benjamin’s perspective piece in that same issue of Science, she notes that researchers “found that because the tool was designed to predict the cost of care as a proxy for health needs, Black patients with the same risk score as White patients tend to be much sicker, because providers spend much less on their care overall. “

While surveillance and tracking are clearly forms of control, and the use of algorithms is a problem, their use is often framed as care (again, see the people interviewed and quoted in the Guardian article, and this is an argument I hear in library contexts too, “we need the data to care for students and faculty.”)

Insisting that people have to participate in systems that harvest their data to have access to education or health care is a kind of predatory inclusion.  

“Predatory inclusion refers to a process whereby members of a marginalized group are provided with access to a good, service, or opportunity from which they have historically been excluded but under conditions that jeopardize the benefits of access. Indeed, processes of predatory inclusion are often presented as providing marginalized individuals with opportunities for social and economic progress. In the long term, however, predatory inclusion reproduces inequality and insecurity for some while allowing already dominant social actors to derive significant profits (Seamster 2017).”

When people become aware that they are under surveillance, there can be a ”chilling effect” where they do not engage with the system at all.  This is refusal, not engaging with the system because of wariness of what might happen if they do.  We need to consider carefully the disparate effect some of these methods of surveillance may have on trans students, undocumented students, and other vulnerable populations.  

Our role as educators, as workers within education, should be to remove barriers for our students and faculty (and ourselves), not give them more.

We also need to think critically about whether the systems we are extracting data from accurately reflect the behaviors we are interested in.  For example, borrowing histories, swipe card activity records, and attendance tracking are all proxies for behaviors, not direct observations, and not necessarily accurate representations of behaviors (even as they might seem precise, and make us feel good about our precision biases).

And if you are worried about “How will we know…X” please do not assume that these systems are the only way.  Because the vendors selling these systems that collect this problematic data want you to THINK that it’s the best and only way to find things out.  But that is not true.  

The fight against quantification, pigeonholing, surveillance and tracking should include qualitative research engagement –like the stuff that I do, like the stuff I try to write about and train people to do, and encourage them to try–engagement with the people from whom we want to learn, and with whom we want to work.  I would even suggest that the lack of “scalability” of qualitative methods is a benefit, if what we want is to be able to push back against surveillance and automated systems.

It’s about more than being able to be strategic on behalf of libraries and library workers, but also being able to create space for students and faculty to be strategic, to exercise power and agency in a context that increasingly wants to remove that, and put people at the mercy of algorithms.  This is particularly dangerous for already vulnerable people–Black and brown, Indigenous, women, LGBTQ+ people. Exploratory ethnographic approaches, engaging with people as people (not as data points) gives us not just more access to the whys and hows of what they are doing, but can work to connect us with them, to build relationships, so that we don’t have to wonder for long “why are they doing that.”  Then we won’t have to listen to people who rely on machines and their broken proxies for human behavior and motivations.  

Further Reading and Resources

LIBRARY TRENDS, Vol. 68, No. 1, 2019 (“Learning Analytics and the Academic Library: Critical Questions about Real and Possible Futures,” edited by Kyle M. L. Jones), © 2019 The Board of Trustees, University of Illinois

Benjamin, Ruha, “Assessing risk, automating racism,”  Science 25 Oct 2019: Vol. 366, Issue 6464, pp. 421-422.  DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz3873

Browne, Simone. Dark matters: On the surveillance of blackness. Duke University Press, 2015.

de Certeau, Michel, and Steven Rendall. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, 2011.

Douglas, Mary. How institutions think. Syracuse University Press, 1986.

Gilliard, Chris “Digital Redlining”  featured session, EDUCAUSE conference, Chicago, October 16, 2019.

Gilliard, Chris and Hugh Culik “Digital Redlining, Access and Privacy”  Privacy Blog, Common Sense Education, May 24, 2016, 

Lanclos, Donna, and Andrew D. Asher. “‘Ethnographish’: The State of the Ethnography in Libraries.” Weave: Journal of Library User Experience 1.5 (2016).;rgn=main

Obermeyer, Ziad, and Sendhil Mullainathan. “Dissecting Racial Bias in an Algorithm that Guides Health Decisions for 70 Million People.” Proceedings of the Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency. ACM, 2019. 

Safiya Umoja Noble. Algorithms of Oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. NYU Press, 2018.

Seamster, Louise, and Raphaël Charron-Chénier. “Predatory inclusion and education debt: Rethinking the racial wealth gap.” Social Currents 4.3 (2017): 199-207.

Watters, Audrey. (2014) “Ed-tech’s Monsters”  Hack education, Sept 3,